O Mentee, Go Dissertate!


Two words – two quite awful words – have crept into the bosom of academe.

For a long time they’ve been on my list of terms I’d wish away if I could, but being powerless on such matters I’ll blog about them instead.

As Lingua Franca readers know, we academics are a caring tribe, helpful and attentive to the needs of our younger colleagues, especially those working on their Ph.D.s.

They are, most of them, writing dissertations. We mentor  these writers, and that is as it should be.

The word disse…


German for Beginners

Refugees arrive in Germany

Refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, arrive in Bavaria. (Photo by Falk Heller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MUNICH — Spende, reads the sign leaning against a tent outside Munich’s main train station. Donations. Items needed for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Germany in recent months. Germany, the final destination — the refugees hope — of long, arduous, often heartbreaking journeys from Afghanistan, Somalia and, in greatest numbers, Syria.

Bottled water
Baby formul…


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Amid the Amidsts

First-year undergraduate writing leaves so much to be desired that it seems silly to get stuck on two letters. But as I grade my first set of papers, I’m struck by the sudden ubiquity of –st:

  • It is interesting to note that whilst the character is dreaming …
  • The true nature of his actions is unbeknownst to the reader.
  • Amongst his peers, Melville was the best at this.
  • Whilst we should not overly concern ourselves with that here …

What’s going on? Most language mavens see the –st forms of these w…


Happy Birthday, Lingua Franca!

Slightly more than four years and a thousand posts ago, at the behest of the editor Heidi Landecker at The Chronicle of Higher Education, this Lingua Franca blog came into being. Since that time, day after day, our motley crew has mused, elucidated, queried, uncovered, advertised, challenged, and pontificated about language, more or less as Heidi and Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor,  had envisioned. And you, dear readers, have responded with everything from dissertations of your own to com…


Everyday Artificial Stupidity


Monday afternoon. The classroom projector announces: “In 2 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.” After 60 seconds, it changes to: “In 1 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.

Was it really too hard to make that “1 minute”?

Tuesday, early morning. No one else in the building. The elevator wakes as I press the “Up” button. But before the doors open a synthesized voice inside announces: “Lift going up!”

The system has been idle, doors closed and no buttons pressed, all night…


A Lesson in ‘Lessen’

quote-no-distance-of-place-or-lapse-of-time-can-lessen-the-friendship-of-those-who-are-thoroughly-robert-southey-174988A few months ago we at Lingua Franca received an email from a suffering reader. His eyes are hurting and his ears are subject to a terrible sound. That sound is the verb lessen. Whatever happened to decrease? our discomfited reader would like to know. And couldn’t we simply ban lessen?

As plenty of other readers remind us, there are more urgent problems in the world. But a complaint like this pushes my curiosity button. Contrary to our writer’s impression, the usage of lessen rather than decreas…


Papal Language


The Pope of Mope

The occasion of a papal visit brings with it an opportunity to consider certain comfortable words. I use comfortable in its earlier sense, “strengthening or  supporting (morally or spiritually); encouraging, inspiring, reassuring, cheering,” to which the Oxford English Dictionary archly adds, “Obs. or arch.” But then the papacy has something arch. about it, though it is certainly not obs.

What are these words? To begin with, pope. It goes way back beyond the origin of the papac…


A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…


On ‘Diversity’

the-great-seal-of-the-usaI have become allergic to the word diversity. It feels empty, or worse, like a chore. Words lose capital when they are overused or when the cultural climate that fostered their meaning changes. Diversity is a good example.

I am a Latino. I have strongly benefited from the drive toward diversity. I like to think of myself as fostering that drive as well. But the fervor behind it belongs to past decades. Our cultural moment is an altogether different one. America is already deeply, irrevocably div…